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Friday, June 9, 2017

Ivison: New Liberal Plan for CAF gets Parliamentary Reality Check

By: John Ivison, The National Post 

Things don’t just happen because politicians are keen on them.

As Yes, Minister’s Sir Humphrey Appelby noted: “Neville Chamberlain was keen on peace.”

The Trudeau government is, all of a sudden, ardent in its enthusiasm for rebuilding the military — growing the regular force and spending billions on equipment purchases and new investments.

But that doesn’t mean any of it will happen.

The day after the glossy defence policy review landed, the House of Commons Public Accounts committee tabled its report on the auditor general’s fall 2016 review of recruitment and retention in the Canadian Armed Forces.

Wednesday’s defence review stated with unwavering confidence that the regular force will grow by 3,500 soldiers to 71,500. Thursday’s committee report suggests that confidence is misplaced.

For one thing, the auditor general noted that there were just 56,300 regular force members at the end of 2015-16.

The auditor’s report stated “it is unlikely that the CAF will be able to recruit, train or retain sufficient personnel to meet its target of 68,000 by the 2018-19 fiscal year.”

A spokeswoman said, as of May 31, the number of regular forces in the navy, army and air force stood at 66,225.

But the defence policy document is frank that a problem exists: “The current system is too slow to compete in Canada’s highly competitive labour market and does not effectively communicate the exciting and fulfilling employment opportunities offered by military service.”

The CAF have found it hard to attract highly skilled people, particularly mental health professionals

With its idealized images of “well-supported, diverse, resilient people and families,” the review document attempts to burnish that lifestyle.

“Military service is extremely rewarding and military members and their families become stronger through the unique challenges and opportunities they face in their work. They become more resilient, discover and strengthen their best attributes and live meaningful, fulfilled lives, secure in the knowledge that they are serving their country,” it says, in prose that seeks to inspire glowing hearts.

The reality is more prosaic. In his committee testimony, John Forster, the deputy minister of National Defence, outlined the challenges the Forces have found with recruitment.

“It’s an exacting, sometimes hazardous profession. Realities such as deployment, separation from family, relocation and the general rigours of military life do not appeal to everyone,” he said.
Cpl Melanie Ferguson, Digital Acquisition Team (DAT)A file photo of troops in the Canadian Forces
The CAF have found it hard to attract highly skilled people, particularly mental health professionals, and even harder to retain people once they have been trained. Of the 95 occupations in the military, 23 had attrition rates higher than 10 per cent.

This is not a new problem — auditors general reports in 2002 and 2006 also found “ongoing, systemic recruiting challenges for the regular forces.”

The defence review suggested a number of new initiatives aimed at improving recruitment and retention: reducing the time it takes to enrol; implementing a targeted recruitment campaign, including hiring more women; increasing diversity and addressing priority occupations; developing a new retention strategy; and providing a tax-free salary to members on deployment internationally.

The Forces could hit its target numbers quicker by becoming more competitive in the labour market

But the fact the problem exists a decade and a half after it was first raised by the auditor suggests it is not going away any time soon.

Clearly, the Forces could hit its target numbers quicker by becoming more competitive in the labour market and jacking wages.

But that is likely to be the fatal flaw in the new defence plan — intentions are good and genuine but, as we hit the years when peak dollars are to be spent, other priorities will come along that may seem much more important, particularly if there is a change of government.

The best-laid schemes of mice and men often go awry, never more so than when they are made by politicians over a 20-year timeline.